Music is the most opened ended of mediums. Individuals can influence the reception of a song or a sonic cycle simply by using their own personal powers of interpretation. What may sound like a collection of purposeful pop hits to some becomes the primer for an entire wounded adolescence. In other instances, self-proclaimed works of art stagnate and slowly fade away. When critics first heard Lou Reed’s follow-up to his crackerjack mainstream monster Transformer, they were at a loss for words. The dark, dirge-like Berlin centered on a pair of desperate junkies, the lyrics exploring such non-commercial themes as suicide and physical abuse. For many, it was just too grim and self-aggrandizing. For painter turned director Julian Schnabel, the 1973 LP became the soundtrack to his troubled teen life.
Now, three and a half decades later, the filmmaker has found a way to celebrate his love of this difficult and dense masterpiece. Convincing Reed to do the au courant thing and play the entire album live, Schnabel set up a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. There, accompanied by an orchestra, a children’s choir, and a sensational back-up band, Reed revisited the story of Caroline, her mentally unsound boyfriend, and their battles with depression and drug addiction. With Schnabel adding a visual interpretation to the story (via filmed sequences created by his daughter Lola) and a locked in look at the onstage dynamic, we are swept away on waves of wounded imagery and tonal misfortune. While not a great cinematic statement, Berlin (now available on DVD from The Weinstein Company’s preeminent Miriam Collection) is still an unbelievably effective concert.
As an artist noted for his imaginative approach, Schnabel’s most shocking invention here is getting Reed to care again. Fans of the former Velvet Underground guide (this critic included) have often lamented the 66-year-old’s sometimes lax performance aesthetic. While never a strong singer, Reed tends to act like a downbeat Dylan, avoiding melody all together for a sloppier, more spoken croak. This frequently renders his outright poptones almost completely uninteresting. Reed got his start in the song factories of Manhattan (at Pickwick, to be specific) and he can’t deny his way with a catchy melody. But when he presents this material onstage, his inferred lack of caring destroys the music’s magic. Here, Reed is back in rare form, sensational with only occasional slippage back into his old, nonchalant ways.
The other startling aspect of Berlin is watching Reed’s reactions. When the audience explodes after a particularly powerful sequence, the man’s manic, weather-beaten smile says it all. Elsewhere, the living legend lets his guard down, flashing obvious signs of appreciation when guitarist Steve Hunter (who played on the original recordings) rips a particularly powerful lead. The best moment, however, is not part of the Berlin album proper. Instead, Reed indulges an encore by bringing UK torch singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) up front. There, the pair perform the old Velvet’s classic “Candy Says” in such a stunning fashion that its creator is visibly shaken. It’s an amazing moment, as if Reed is finally realizing just how great his songwriting skill is, and how amazing it is to hear someone really run with and interpret his marvelous ideas.
This does not dampen the impact of the other offerings. Berlin remains a fascinating piece, a collection of simple sentiments expanded by an almost apocalyptic scope. Most of this came courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin, and the concert experience improves on the LP’s rather restrictive mixes. Live, the title track explodes across the stage, while “Lady Day” sounds as definitive as anything Reed has ever done. Both “Caroline Says I” and it’s far more famous follow-up showcased the combined effectiveness of their author’s words and music. By the time “Men of Good Fortune” rolls around, we are sold, and then Reed cements the deal with his readings of “The Bed” and “Sad Song”. Without the dimensions of such a show, Berlin can seem self-indulgent and insular. But in performance, it finds its focus and force.
As part of the DVD release, there’s a five minute interview with Reed and Schnabel (taken from something called “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”) that explains some of the motivations behind the album and the movie. There are also six minutes of behind the scene material, clips of the musicians warming up, the crew creating the stage, and blocking being discussed. The only thing missing here is a commentary track from the director. Schnabel clearly relates to Berlin (he calls it a celebration of “love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss”) and it would have been wonderful to hear how he interprets the material, especially in light of the comments about his past. Reed’s input would be wonderful as well, yet it’s clear that, as he’s aged, the man has gotten even more closed off and bitter. Sadly, neither man gets a chance for a deeper discussion.
Still, one has to compliment an artist who chooses to revisit a much maligned work. Until recently, it was rare when someone like Reed would play an entire album in concert. For some, going back to a song or sound that may have been part of a one-off or casual studio experiment must be mindboggling. Hits have a tendency to live on outside their creation. The filler and ancillary tracks remain locked forever in their making-of moment. For Lou Reed, Berlin must represent both the best of times and the worst of times. Cash had given him the freedom to create. Sadly, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and its accompanying LP removed much of his ability to experiment. The result was a lost gem, undiscovered until now. For Julian Schnabel, Berlin stands as a personal touchstone. Thankfully, he’s allowed the rest of us to rediscover its amazing magic as well.